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McMaster urging sweeping reforms for SC magistrates


COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday urged sweeping changes to the qualifications and oversight of South Carolina magistrates after a joint investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica exposed abuse and incompetence among the state’s front-line judges.

McMaster pointed to that reporting while dedicating a portion of his annual State of the State address to what he described as needed reforms to fend off further corruption and misapplication of the law by the state’s cadre of more than 300 magistrates

Every magistrate would be required to be a practicing lawyer with a clean record, McMaster stressed. As it stands, a large majority of these judges have never practiced law in their lives.

McMaster also called on lawmakers to revamptheirprocessforscreening and approving candidates, who need little more than the support of local politicians to sit in judgment on hundreds of thousandsofcriminalandcivil cases each year.

“The first step in reform is transparency and accountability,” McMaster said.

A 2019 series by The Post and Courier and ProPublica exposed how a flawed system of selection and oversight provided fertile ground for misconduct on the bench.

Hand-picked by politicians, some magistrates were found to have accepted bribes, stolen money,flubbedtrials,trampled over constitutional protections and mishandled even the most basic elements of criminal cases.

In the wake of The Post and Courier and ProPublica’s reporting, some lawmakers moved quickly to propose a set of reforms. Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, is spearheading an effort that would mandate magistrates undergo more formal legal training and tighten the Legislature’s scrutiny around their appointments. McMaster on Wednesday insisted lawmakers should take the matters a step further, placing even stricter requirements on magistrates’ qualifications and appointments.

His comments, while brief, amount to the most significant proposal to date for what advocates have said are long-needed changes to an antiquated system of justice, one that has remained virtually untouched for more than a century.

South Carolina magistrates preside over cases involving petty thefts, drunken driving, domestic violence, assaults and disorderly conduct. They also issue arrest warrants, set bail and conduct preliminary hearings to assess if there is sufficient probable cause to support felony charges such as murder, rape and robbery.

But about three-quarters of the state’s magistrates have never practiced law, The Post and Courier and ProPublica found. Their ranks have included construction workers, insurance agents and pharmacists. Before taking the bench, they are required to undergo fewer hours of training than the Palmetto State requires of its barbers and hair salon technicians.

McMaster, a former state attorney general, has largely been quiet on the subject of magistrate reform. Presented with the findings of the news investigation in 2019, McMaster declined to be interviewed. But he has acknowledged the governor’s limited role in their selections.

While the state constitution places appointments in the governor’s hands, in practice the executive office acts as nothing more than a rubber stamp. State senators hold broad authority to hand-pick candidates of their choosing, and selections are almost never questioned outside of local delegations.

McMaster, during Wednesday’s remarks, urged a process with more scrutiny, one that would require candidates to be screened in legislative hearings. That would place magistrate appointments in line with the state’s circuit judges, who handle all felony cases and are required to be seasoned attorneys.

The governor has credited the reporting by The Post and Courier and ProPublica with bringing problems with the state’s oversight of magistrates to his attention. The news organizations discovered a loophole that allowed magistrates to hide prior ethical offenses while applying for new terms.

A dozen sitting judges who have been disciplined for misconduct by the state’s judicial watchdog skated through their last appointment, no questions asked, the investigation found. It’s too early to say if Mc-Master’s proposals will receive support in the Legislature. State senators historically have clung to the powers of judicial selection afforded to them by a system that’s unlike any other in the country.

Some lawmakers have already objected to the notion that the state should require magistrates to be lawyers.

There are practical challenges, including a likely need to raise magistrate salaries to attract practicing attorneys who otherwise might have to swallow a drastic pay cut to take the bench, critics have noted. And some rural counties have very few lawyers to fill those positions.

That hasn’t stopped some senators who have taken the lead in proposing reforms.

That includes Davis and Sen. Tom Young, an Aiken Republican. Their proposed legislation has already received ringing endorsements from key members of the S.C. Senate Judiciary Committee, which would review any proposal before a floor vote.

Sen. Chip Campsen, a ranking committee member and Charleston Republican, said he considers the proposals to be a “priority” this legislative session.

He’s been eyeing changes to the magistrate system for years, he said.